For decades ,scientists have grappled with the possibility of creating artificially manufactured cells endowing the life- like properties of a living cell.Significant progress in this regard has been made in the field of synthetic biology, a field which aims at redesigning and engineering organisms to achieve desired qualities.But creating something in a laboratory which can be considered “alive” is not a piece of cake.This procedure of engineering cells includes multiple, complex processes such as reading the DNA code ,copying existing DNA sequences and so on.Furthermore, even the simplest of organisms depict the usage of complicated, biochemical operations for growth and replication. In face of these complications, scientists have struggled with creating artificial cells which can perform a single function like gene expression or enzyme catalysis. But the researchers at the University of Bristol have reached a milestone in bioengineering with their success in designing a system, capable of performing the functions of a living cell including energy generation and gene expression.
|Rod shaped Escherichia coli|
How did the researchers construct synthetic “living” cells?
To achieve such a bioengineering accomplishment ,researchers made use of two bacterial colonies, Escherichia coli ( E. coli) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The researchers mixed these bacteria with empty microdroplets in a viscous liquid. One population of bacteria was then captured inside the droplets while the other was captured outside the droplet surface. This was followed by bursting open the bacterial membranes by bathing the colonies in the enzyme , lysozyme and melittin, a polypeptide extracted from honeybee venom. As the bacteria spilled their contents, the contents were captured by the droplets, creating membrane- coated protocells. These protocells, as the scientists demonstrated, were able to perform complex processes such as production of ATP (energy storage molecule) through glycolysis and transcription along with the translation of genes.
What is the significance of this development for the future of bioengineering?
According to Can Xu, a researcher involved in the process , their living-material assembly approach provides scope for the bottom-up construction of symbiotic living/synthetic cell constructs. Adding to this, Xu claims that through the use of chemically engineered bacteria, it would be possible to create complex modules for development in diagnostic and therapeutic areas of synthetic biology as well as in biomanufacturing and biotechnology. This kind of technology can further be used to improve ethanol production for biofuels and food processing.Now scientists are also aiming to engineer new systems through mixing-and-matching some structures and completely redesigning some others by combining this technology with knowledge based on advanced models of basic biology. They claim that artificial cells could be programmed to photosynthesize like purple bacteria, or generate energy from chemicals just like sulfate-reducing bacteria. All in all this step in the field of bioengineering has opened gates for a multitude of possibilities ranging from the field of medicine to manufacturing. Now scientists are one step closer to cracking the secret of custom building and programming artificial cells which will be adept in mimicking life.